Cop26 shows it's time for health tech to act on climate change

The NHS has already made a commitment to become the first net zero health and care system in the world. It’s time for digital health vendors to think about their role – and to be ready to talk about how they are tackling global heating, says Susan Venables, founder and client services director at Highland Marketing

Living in the highlands of Scotland, it’s been impossible to miss the build up to Cop26. Glasgow is just an hour and a half away, and it has been preparing for the UN Climate Change Conference of the Parties for months.

Over the weekend, the news has been dominated by the arrival of the ministers who are supposed to agree the next steps on implementing the Paris Agreement and the pressure groups that are seeking to influence them.

For the next two weeks, Glasgow will be a riot of international debate, protest, and trade fair as the world looks on and asks the big question: it is going to be possible to deliver Paris and limit global warming to below 2 and preferably 1.5 degrees Celsius, in comparison with pre-industrial levels?

Climate change and the NHS

It’s a big challenge, and one that matters to the NHS. Partly, that’s because it could see a big increase in demand if temperatures continue to rise. Public Health England reckons 2,500 people died in last year’s heatwave alone.

Partly, it’s because the health service itself accounts for 4-7% of the UK’s greenhouse gas emissions, depending on whether you look at the carbon generated by its day-to-day operations or the many things associated with them, from food to patient travel.

The NHS is aware of this. In June 2019, Newcastle upon Tyne Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust became the first provider to declare a climate emergency. Since then, others have followed suit, including the mega-trust in Manchester and big name-hospitals in London.

NHS England has also picked up the baton. In October last year, its former chief executive, Sir Simon (now Lord) Stevens issued a report urging the NHS to become “the world’s first carbon net zero national health system” by 2040. That’s in less than twenty years.

Procurement will drive change, ready or not

I think health tech vendors need to sit up and take note of all this. Climate change is on the government and the NHS policy agenda. It’s already flying with influential trusts; and all NHS trusts will have to have a green plan by the end of the year.

The climate and health agenda will get another boost when England’s integrated care systems start work in April, because they have a population health remit and they will be working with local authorities that already have to consider the economic and social impact of their work.

Plus, when you look at the crowds gathering for Cop26, or the audience for net zero sessions at health events, it’s obvious that the climate and health emergency engages a younger, more diverse audience than most government, health or even digital issues do.

That means that health tech vendors need a good story to tell. In the short term, if you have a well-grounded, well-evidenced message, you are going to have a valuable differentiator in the market, and one that will resonate with a new and different audience for what you have to offer.

In the medium to long-term, having that message is going to be essential to protect your reputation and to continue to work with the NHS. From April 2022, every NHS tender will have a 10% net zero and social value weighting.

From April 2023, all NHS tenders worth more £5 million will require bidders to have published a carbon reduction plan, just to be considered. After that, the technical and procurement requirements on the NHS England roadmap only get tougher…

Tips for getting your climate message out

I don’t claim to be an expert on how health tech suppliers can demonstrate their contribution to keeping people well in a warming world, or on how they can calculate their contribution to the NHS carbon footprint, or their own carbon footprint.

The Highland Marketing advisory board is holding a special meeting towards the end of Cop26 to discuss these issues with expert input from David Newell, the head of health at Gemserv. But, as a head’s up: this is not about reducing a few travel miles or planting a few trees!

There are some gnarly things to get into, from thinking about how your data centre is powered, to working out how to provide support in a world where jumping on a plane is no longer an option, to examining the waste and working conditions in your supply chain.

Where I can claim to be an expert is in thinking through how companies need to present themselves to the health and care sector and how make sure that influencers and customers receive that information in the most effective way possible.

So, as a starting point, here are some basic tips for suppliers that want to start thinking about how they can build net zero into their marketing and public relations:

  • Make sure this is on your agenda. Look at the NHS England plan and its subsequent presentations, think about what is being asked of health tech suppliers, and what positive impacts that will have on your business.
  • Collect evidence. If you are engaged in a project that has a measurable impact on addressing the health impacts of climate change or reducing the carbon footprint of the NHS, make sure that you are capturing that information.
  • Share success. If you’ve done a great piece of work and you can prove it, a compelling press release or case study will raise your profile and demonstrate your credentials to potential customers and their increasingly engaged, increasingly savvy end-users.
  • Join the conversation. Cop26 is capturing headlines and NHS net zero plan is getting attention, but there has been relatively little commentary on the role of health tech. So, there’s an opportunity to shape the agenda through blogs, opinion pieces, podcasts and social content.
  • Prep for media opportunities. Both the mainstream media and the specialist health and tech press is starting to write about net zero. A well-briefed spokesperson ready to engage at short notice could secure you national press coverage that doesn’t come along all that often.

The moment is now

Cop26 has really focused attention on climate heating. Hearing about the science and seeing the passion of the many young people who are pouring into Glasgow has made me realise that now is the moment for all of us to start thinking about how we can take action.

I want to be completely clear that I am not suggesting to health tech vendors that this is a great bandwagon to jump on or that they should have a friendly green message. Suppliers need to take a good, hard look at the carbon impact of their activities and to make a start on a plan for reducing that.

The other reason that now is the moment is that NHS England has published one of the most ambitious plans in the world for a net zero health and care system and is creating technical and procurement strategies to deliver on it. Companies can seek to influence those plans by showing the change they are making; or get caught up in change that is happening anyway.

Here at Highland Marketing, we always say we are looking for ‘health tech to shout about’. Increasingly, a commitment to net zero and social responsibility is going to be one of the things that health tech vendors are going to need to shout about; and that the NHS and its users will be expecting to hear.

Featured Companies

Highland Marketing (more information, website)